Small Translation Mistakes That Caused Massive Problems Part 1

In this two-part article we’ll take a look at what can happen when translation goes wrong. We’ve all made mistakes, it’s all part of the game and of the learning process. No one’s perfect. When you add the fact that sometimes the translators working on the most important translations are inexperienced, nervous or even just having a bad day, along with the cultural nuances that are only evident when you have lived in that country, then those small mistakes can cause massive problems.

In this first part we will look at the political world, where there were a lot of translation blunders.

The Heat in the Cold War

The Cold War was notorious for tension. This was a time when the world was on the brink of World War III and when the USA and Russia were just looking for an excuse to get at each other’s throats. When you consider that there were so many political blunders and mistranslations during this time, it’s amazing that we’ll all still alive today.

One of those mishaps came when Soviet Nikita Khrushchev said “we will bury you” when talking about the United States. Those are harsh words and ones that could easily incite a war, but the truth was that he didn’t actually say those words. That’s what the translator passed on and he caused a lot of issues when he did, but the actual quote would be something more along the lines of “we will live longer than you.” In truth there is no direct English translation for this Russian expression, but it was certainly not a declaration of war.

The loveable Jimmy Carter was also on the end of a mistranslation during the Cold War, occurring a couple of decades after this Nikita Khrushchev mistake. President at the time, Jimmy Carter flew out to Poland to hold a press conference where the Polish would basically ask him questions over the course of a couple of hours. It was almost guaranteed to cause issues from the start, and thanks to some poor translating, the English speaking portion of the crowd heard something different to the Polish speaking portion.

The first mistranslation came when Jimmy Carter announced that he had left the US that morning to fly to Poland, only for the translator to tell the Polish speaking audience that he “had left, and would never return.” Whilst the Polish people were asking themselves why the US President had decided to call Poland his home, he then told them that he desired them and wanted to have sex with them.

What was actually said by Carter was fairly innocuous, but it was translated into “I desire the Poles carnally.” The issue here is that the translator was mainly a Russian speaker who also spoke English, and his knowledge of Polish was very limited.

Bush Gives Australia the Finger

Sometimes, even countries that speak the same languages can be completely different, as George Bush Senior discovered during a visit to Australia’s capital in 1992. Whilst driving by in his armoured car with all of his entourage, Bush was polite enough to give a group of locals the “V” for victory symbol, perhaps as a way of showing his support for the local team.

The issue was that whilst that two-finger salute means “Victory” in the US, it means something a lot more in Australia (and other parts of the world) and Bush’s actions were tantamount to him swearing at the locals and giving them the middle finger.

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